The steady-state kinetics of reductant-independent ATP hydrolysis by Klebsiella pneumoniae nitrogenase at 23 degrees C at pH 7.4 were determined as a function of component protein ratio (optimal at an oxidized Fe protein/MoFe protein ratio of 3:1) and MgATP concentration (Km 400 microM). Competitive inhibition was observed for MgADP (Ki 145 microM), [beta gamma-methylene]ATP (Mgp[CH2]ppA) (Ki 115 microM), [beta gamma-monofluoromethylene]ATP (Mgp[CHF]ppA) (Ki 53 microM) and [beta gamma-difluoromethylene]ATP (Mgp[CF2]ppA) (Ki 160 microM). The tighter binding of MgADP to free oxidized Fe protein (KD less than 10 microM) than to the oxidized Fe protein-MoFe protein complex (Ki 145 microM) is proposed as the driving force that induces rate-limiting protein dissociation in the catalytic cycle of nitrogenase. The reversible nature of the reductant-independent MgATP-cleavage reaction was demonstrated by an MgADP-induced enhancement of the rate of the phosphate/water oxygen exchange reaction with 18O-labelled phosphate ion. This enhancement, like the reductant-independent ATPase reaction, only occurred with the complex formed by oxidized Fe protein and MoFe protein and not with the individual proteins. The results are discussed in terms of the mechanism of ATP hydrolysis by nitrogenase and other systems involving protein-protein interactions.